Zaxby’s announced Tuesday that former El Pollo Loco leader Bernard Acoca has been named CEO.

CEO and co-founder Zach McLeroy will transition to chairman effective January 2022 after leading the fast casual for more than 30 years. 

McLeroy founded Zaxby’s with childhood friend Tony Townley in 1990. Since then, the chain has grown to more than 900 locations across 17 states. 

“I am humbled by the success Zaxby’s has experienced since my co-founder and I launched the company three decades ago,” McLeroy said in a statement. “Earlier this year, I decided that the best way to capitalize on the enormous opportunities available to Zaxby’s was to bring in the brand’s first external Chief Executive Officer. We have been engaged in a CEO search to find someone with the strategic, operational, and marketing expertise to accelerate Zaxby’s growth and lead our national expansion. We’re thrilled to have identified Bernard Acoca, a respected industry leader, to guide our future success. I wholeheartedly believe Bernard is committed to growing our business while preserving the best of our heritage and culture.”

Acoca joins Zaxby’s nearly two weeks after El Pollo announced his resignation as CEO. The industry veteran has more than two decades of experience as a marketer and executive in the restaurant industry. He’s worked as CEO of El Pollo for three and a half years, a period in which he led the brand through what was called a “transformation agenda” in which digital accelerated, drive-thru and back of the house were streamlined, and the chain doubled down on its L.A.-Mex brand with a new contemporary prototype and design. 

Prior to his tenure at the California-based fast casual, Acoca served as president of Teavana, Starbucks’ global tea brand, and as the coffee chain’s senior voice president of marketing and category for the Americas. He also worked as CMO for the Americas for L’Oréal, and spent a decade in various marketing roles at YUM! Brands. 

“It is an honor to step into the shoes of Zach McLeroy as the first external CEO,” Acoca said in a statement. “Zach has built the Zaxby’s brand into more than just a quick-service chicken chain. He has found the secret to success is serving our communities quality food, providing team members with opportunity, creating a definable culture of service, and collaborating with strategic partners to grow the brand to new heights. I am thrilled to be joining Zaxby’s at this exciting milestone, and I look forward to working with the talented people in the Zaxby’s family to build upon the brand’s success.”

The move comes nearly a year after Zaxby’s announced that it sold a “significant” stake to Goldman Sachs. The deal is intended to accelerate growth and expansion into new sales channels. According to QSR 50 data, the chain earned $2 billion in U.S. sales in 2020, and had an AUV of $1.5 million. The restaurant opened 10 stores in 2020, and ended the year with 760 franchise stores and 145 company-run outlets. 

“Bernard is a seasoned executive with a proven track record of driving sales and profits,” Nicole Agnew, partner in private equity business at Goldman Sachs, said in a statement. “I am confident he has the experience and humility to lead Zaxby’s, its franchisees, and its employees to achieve new levels of success in the future. I am also deeply thankful that we will continue to have Zach’s stewardship of the brand as Chairman and know that we will continue to be guided by his vision for Zaxby’s in the future.”

Employee Management, Fast Casual, Story, Zaxby's